I Feel for You

Carol Greenburg


I feel sorry for those who think autistics have no ability to empathize. In my case at least, Asperger’s left me too vulnerable to the emotions of others.

When I was a little girl, I smiled until my face hurt. I was nowhere near as delighted as the constant smile seemed to indicate, but I was not miserable either. The unrelenting  smile was, I now believe, the product of rigid autistic thinking, which had led me to a false conclusion that like everything else in my world, there was a correct and incorrect path. Blocks must be stacked in a certain formation, every imaginable question had right and wrong answers. By that admittedly skewed, reasoning, the same principal must have applied to emotion. There was one correct emotion: happiness, which was always expressed with a smile.

Other emotions existed, that was irrefutable. Whatever other explanation could there be for tears or frowns? I avoided wearing such expressions on my own face though, because they and the emotions they represented were obviously incorrect. However I couldn’t seem to control the emotions of others, which was maddening, like sudden mind-reading abilities in the science fiction stories to which I  was always so drawn, a terrifying telepathy that inevitably landed protagonists in the equivalent of their planets’  rubber rooms. 

I would not describe this way of thinking as healthy. I wasn’t simply irked when an adult or another child would refuse to comply with my orders to smile, I was furious and terrified and would not, could not, calm down until they did. What complicated matters more then, and continues to complicate them to this day, is my impaired ability to read facial expressions and body language. Like many autistic people, I’m capable of seeing macro-expressions, broad smiles, uncontrollable tooth-grinding rage, but more subtle expressions remain a mystery to me. I still can’t tell if the not-entirely happy person next to me is mourning the loss of a beloved friend, or the loss of a just-manicured nail tip.

Although I’m better equipped to handle all the input as an adult than I was as a child, between the sensory overload of loud music, bright lights, forced conversation (especially that autistic bête noir, the inescapable natter of small talk), my sensory processing abilities are already taxed. On top of all that, I often feel people feeling at me. Whether they notice my presence or not, I notice theirs, and my ability to process their emotions — the origin and nature of which I still have difficulty interpreting — causes me distress.

It’s a mistake to confuse an inability to sense with an inability to care. To the extent that I am able to resonate with other people’s emotions, I care intently. Further, I am aware that I am not aware of what people are feeling and compensate by the seemingly simple but actually complex method of inquiring.

I don’t like to think about the part of my life in which happiness was the only correct emotion. I have never written about it. But I recently had a conversation with one of my son’s teachers that sent chills down my spine. She told me about a little girl with the same diagnosis as mine, Asperger’s. Like me, she has always been verbal, but when someone she cares for does not produce a smile that lives up to her expectations she will crawl up on their lap and try to force their lips into what she considers a properly happy expression. I remember doing that .

My autistic son is minimally verbal, but there is no doubt in my mind that his empathy is as powerful of as that of those who can articulate it. He’s been using what words he has to ask me if our cats are happy. He’s been asking his teachers if a particularly close friend of his in school is happy. Not curiously or occasionally, but frantically and repetitively. No amount of reassurance seems to soothe him for more than a moment when he gets into one of these loops. Medication helps; we also have high hopes for social stories. Since we want to teach him that he has some power to influence others positively we make suggestions about concrete things he can do to help. Finally, we emphasize the transitory nature of emotion.

I suspect the notion that whatever is going on in a given moment will last forever is a common autistic fear. I have it, too. So when my son seems to be frightened by his own reactions to others’ emotions, I stroke his hair and I remind him that smiles and frowns are like rain and sunshine. Neither lasts forever. Just when you think the weather cannot ever change, it does.

I have faith that my son will resolve this confusion just as he has conquered other perplexing aspects of a world not tailored to his needs, but he’ll need help. He needs to learn that he does have power, not to change the weather of people’s moods, but to react to them in a compassionate yet not all-consuming way. 

I am working on that skill myself, very slowly improving, but I believe his prospects are better than mine. What I do know from my own experience in this realm, and what I strongly believe when I observe him, is that pushing for greater empathy in an already hyper-empathetic child will not help and might even cause more distress and confusion for him. Empathy he’s got. Boundaries are what he needs. Shoring up some kind of emotional self-defense in one of the most caring children I can imagine, that’s what all of us who love him will spend the next few years doing. As parenting tasks go, I think it beats the hell out of trying to foment empathy where an exhausting abundance already exists.